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With Katzenberg Gone, It's a Whole New World

June 16, 1996|John Clark

'The Hunchback of Notre Dame" is the first Disney animated feature in recent years that was not overseen by studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg, who left the company early in production to help launch DreamWorks SKG.

Credited with helping to resurrect the studio's moribund animation division in the 1980s, he had a reputation for micro-managing the productions, sometimes precipitating what has been referred to as "a mid-production meltdown" or "a train wreck," where he'd rip up much of what the animators had done and tell them to start over again. "Hunchback" producer Don Hahn says that Katzenberg's input, though valuable, had its limits.

"He was a great collaborator when he was here," Hahn says. "He'd come in for an hour or two every week and look in on what we were doing. But at this point, I think we're figuring out our own sensibilities, our own ambitions of what we want to do."

"Hunchback" directors Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale seem to have felt his presence--and absence--more keenly. Among other things, they say, while "Hunchback" was in production Katzenberg was raiding the animation division for talent to start his own unit at DreamWorks. Some of their colleagues went, others didn't, but none left while they were still involved with the project. The directors say that even they were wooed by Katzenberg.

"He was calling every week for a while," Trousdale says. "He doesn't anymore. He stopped calling us when we stopped returning his calls. At one point, he'd just raided some really good people, and we didn't want to talk to him."

(When contacted seeking comment from Katzenberg, who is suing Disney for $250 million, DreamWorks executive Terry Press said: "Jeffrey does not talk about Disney. It gets everybody in trouble.")

More important in terms of the production, there were no Katzenberg-inspired train wrecks. Despite a whole host of problems (songs written and discarded, etc.), Hahn and the directors note how much smoother the process was than in years past.

"I think the biggest difference has been that there's been more trust invested in the filmmakers to make the movie they want to make," Wise says.

"We were given a lot more free rein on this and not having every single choice or decision second-guessed or questioned," Trousdale says.

"Or beaten into the ground," adds Wise. At the same time, he says, "I really admired the fact that Jeffrey was relentless in trying to get us to constantly do better and challenge us to not necessarily settle for the first idea that came down the pike. I think we found ourselves challenging ourselves even more in terms of making sure that this was the best choice creatively on any decision, just by virtue of the fact that there wasn't going to be someone in the executive ranks who we knew was going to be breathing down our necks and challenging us. We had to provide the challenge for ourselves."

Part of this autonomy was no doubt due to the directors' increased expertise. But, they say, some of it was due to the distractions following Katzenberg's departure.

"We were underway when all this stuff started happening," Trousdale says. "Michael [Eisner] and Roy [Disney] were throwing their hands up in the air trying to rearrange all the pieces on the board over there while across the street. . . ."

" . . . We still had a movie to make," Wise says. "We actually got to make a lot of huge creative leaps with very little executive attention, which was kind of fun."

Peter Schneider, president of Disney animation, doesn't quite agree with this interpretation of events, saying that both he and Tom Schumacher, executive vice president of development, were heavily involved.

He does say, though, "that the big philosophical change over the last couple of years is to empower the artists more to create what they feel is appropriate. I would say that Kirk and Gary feel that this is their movie and not somebody else's. I would say that Ron Clements and John Musker, who are working on 'Hercules,' feel it is their own movie and not someone else's. In my opinion that makes for better movies."

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